Speaking of Nature: The great egret: Simply beautiful to behold

  • Great egret. In the photo I have provided, you can see the split second when the bird tossed the fish up to reposition the morsel for easier swallowing. BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 9/7/2021 1:43:01 PM

It is a large white bird that is usually seen standing in shallow water. This is by no means enough information to identify the bird, but it is certainly a good place to start.

This bird has long black legs and a long yellow beak and it can be found in both saltwater and freshwater environments here in New England. Now we’re getting much closer!

If you happen to see this bird in flight, or up in a tree, you will notice that the bird has black feet. That is pretty much all you need to identify the bird as a great egret (Ardeaalbus).

But classifying this particular bird has definitely given taxonomists some trouble over the years. Carolus Linnaeus was the first to act in 1758 when he assigned this species the name “Casmerodiusalbus.” The inventor of the naming system known as binomial nomenclature, Linnaeus was described as the “Pliny of the North” and “The Prince of Botanists.” A Swedish physician, botanist and zoologist, Linnaeus was basically a genius.

The name that he chose for the great egret shows the basic “problem” that taxonomists were having. The word “Casemerodius” is a compound word formed by combining thr Greek words “kasis,” which means “brother or sister” and basically suggests the notion of being related to someone, and the Greek word “erodios,” which means “heron.” The species indicator, “albus” simply means, “white.”

The great egret clearly looked like a heron, but something about it caused Linnaeus to hesitate a little and create a genus just for this one bird. Anyone with any experience with birds will clearly see a close similarity between the great egret and the great blue heron, although the great blue heron is the larger bird and it has different plumage coloration and decorations. That being said, the coloration of different birds does not necessarily point to a close relationship between them.

At one point the species was known as the American egret, the common egret and the white egret, but the name great egret was adopted and it simply suggests that among the egrets this is the largest one. The common name has persisted, but in 1977 a decision was made to change the bird’s status and it was reassigned to the genus “Ardea.” This is the Latin word for “heron” and it is also the genus of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias). For those of you who are really excited by languages, the word, “herodias” is taken from the Greek word, “erodios,” which means, “heron.”

Stepping back from the Sheldoneue science of naming systems, the great egret is one of those birds that can stop you in your tracks and provoke an audible sigh of wonder. These birds are simply beautiful to behold and they pop up in strange places at this time of year. Listed as a common breeding bird from New Jersey south to Florida, the great egret is downgraded to an uncommon breeder in Massachusetts. Although it may breed in inland locations, it is definitely a bird associated with coastal areas.

I recently visited Martha’s Vineyard and whenever I went to West Basin I was sure to see several egrets there. Some were great egrets and others were the smaller snowy egrets. To see gathering of these elegant birds patiently waiting for fish to swim within range of those long beaks and S-shaped necks is truly something to behold.

The bird I photographed was standing an area where there was some seaweed on the rocks that potentially offered smaller fish some protection from predators. The bird simply had to wait. The changing tides brought little fish in and out of this location constantly and the bird just needed to grab one that was unlucky. Again and again the egret jabbed at the water and I would say it was successful about half the time. In the photo I have provided you can see the split second when the bird tossed the fish up to reposition the morsel for easier swallowing.

At this time of the year you have the best chance of seeing a great egret in our area because the birds have reproduced and the offspring have fanned out across the landscape to look for food. Fish are still at the top of the menu, but egrets will also eat frogs, snakes and even dragonflies. Basically, if it is edible and either in or above the water the bird is foraging in, then it is potential food.

The weather is definitely starting to change and although it is still summer, we will officially acknowledge the arrival of autumn in just a couple weeks. The herons and egrets of our area cannot afford to take chances with the weather, so they will abandon more northerly areas long before the last frogs have gone to sleep. They will head for North Carolina south to Florida, where the can focus their attentions on finding fish along the coast. So, if you happen to travel south during the winter to visit family in Florida, you will notice lots of these birds while you are there.

I hope that you have managed to weather the remnants of the various hurricanes without incident and that you are safe, sound, healthy and happy. I would highly recommend a hike, a walk, or even just an evening spent outside once the weather decides to be cooperative. On this extra day of time we are given to be at home it is extra important to seek out calm, peace and solace in nature. All you have to do is go outside.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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